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The Chancellor’s Community Award Recipient: Aaqilah Islam

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Aaqilah is an M.A. alum of Pacifica and a current doctoral student in the Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology, and Ecopsychology Specialization of the Depth Psychology Program. She is a pro bono teacher in the largest prison education program in California: the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison. Their mission is ” to provide excellent higher education programs to people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison; to create a replicable model for such programs; and to stimulate public awareness and meaningful dialogue about higher education and criminal justice in California.” As part of her community fieldwork at Pacifica, she taught a class in developmental psychology at the prison. She was aware that she had many fathers in her class and wanted the course to provide a space for reflection not only on their own developmental passages, but those of their children (and sometimes grandchildren).

She soon realized that many students needed a more protected space in which to discuss their ideas and experiences, to assemble writing skills, and to forge a positive vision and self-identity of themselves as a learner. She created this additional space, reflecting on the particular needs of her students, many of whom by virtue of race and ethnicity had experienced impoverished educational environments in which they had not experienced the social and psychic space to share their thoughts and have them be valued. She was particularly attuned to the work of moving from the imposed identity of being a prisoner to a chosen and embodied identity as a man of learning.

She choose to continue to teach after her fieldwork was completed, and created an interdisciplinary, reading, writing and research class with a focus on social justice and health disparities.

The following is the abstract from her written work on these issues: “This paper explores theoretical frameworks related to formations of identity and highlights the significance of developing culturally relevant teaching strategies for incarcerated students. While policy is critical in helping incarcerated people access quality education, the significance of forming an academic identity and strengthening the linkages between community support networks and male-students living in state prisons are often ignored and devalued. In relationship to prison education programs theories from community psychology and liberation psychologies are extended to raise questions for discussion as reflections from teachers, and students emphasize the implications of acknowledging the transformative impact of experiential knowledge. Although recent changes in educational policies will allow eligible incarcerated students access to Pell Grants to help pay for the cost of a college education, such policies also draw attention to the need for restructuring carceral spaces, expanding social capital and strengthening teaching communities to help sustain these critical changes.”

Aaqilah and her colleagues’ work can be seen here: NPR’s All Things Considered, Why Aren’t There More Higher Ed Programs Behind Bars? and in the LA Times, August 5: Four prisons in California to get community college programs

Teaching is never easy. Teaching in prison takes a very special commitment. Prisons are not only designed to keep people in; they are designed to keep civil society out. It is time consuming getting into a prison. There are no comfortable spaces inside of them. You need to counter at every turn the dehumanizing practices on which they are founded. There is no funding and no fanfare. Such teaching arises from a deep commitment to the dignity and potential of EVERY human being. Such is Aaqilah’s quiet, firm, unheralded determination to be of use to her students.


More about The Chancellor’s Community Award:

This program underscores Pacifica Graduate Institute’s commitment to community and “tending soul in and of the world”. Through this award, Pacifica Graduate Institute celebrates the accomplishment and personal dedication of its alumni, future alumni, students and faculty. The award provides worldwide recognition for service to our communities.

This award is given in recognition of exemplary service. The Chancellor’s Community was created to encourage and recognizes individuals who serve.

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