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In their own words: Inmates speak on literacy, community

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Inmates in the John Howard Society of Manitoba literacy program are raising money to buy sports equipment for two North End agencies by selling copies of their latest newsletter, Inside Scoop, for $1.

On Aug. 9, program co-ordinator Jacquie Nicholson conducted an interview on behalf of The Times with the editorial board of Inside Scoop inside the Winnipeg Remand Centre. Below is the full transcript of that interview:

 

Why do you come to the John Howard Society literacy program?

Todd McMillan: I started out coming just to keep my math up for my apprenticeship, but I ended up working on a number of different things and then continuing on to get my GED. (Todd now tutors other students in the program)

Stefan McKenzie (also a peer tutor): I feel good about learning and educating myself – I just love to learn new things. And the more I learn, the more I can pass on to others, like my kids, a friend, or someone else here in the Remand Centre.

Kevin Williams: It can help my way of thinking, help me build confidence in myself, think more positively, and sharpen my skills so I’m prepared to take my GED.

Stefan McKenzie: And also, just to be around positive people, and to get involved in the community.

Kevin Williams: Coming here helps me figure out what I want to do with my life.

 

What are your goals in the program?

Kevin: Right now I’m learning about science, learning a lot from my tutor, and working on personal goals and toward bettering myself just generally.

Dustin: I’m trying to get a jump start on studying for the GED.

Stefan: In this program, I’m surrounding myself with other people who are doing something with their lives instead of just sitting here and wasting their time.

 

Why do you volunteer on the Inside Scoop editorial board? Why did you decide to participate in this fundraiser?

Robin: I volunteer on the Inside Scoop editorial board so that I can offer my views on content for the newsletter, and bounce my ideas around with the other members.

Stefan: I think the Inside Scoop helps other people to understand that they’re not alone when they’re going through all these struggles in life, all these obstacles.

Dustin: You read the poetry and you connect with it. Not everybody who reads the Scoop has the exact same story, but there are enough people who do that there’s always something in there you can relate to.

Stefan: Having the Inside Scoop gives people the courage to speak up and tell their stories.

Kevin Williams: It helps us to be heard. It gives us a voice and a say. It’s our connection to the rest of society, our way to take part in important things like the Idle No More movement, or this fundraiser. It connects people – you see someone else in here stepping up, and then it encourages you to step up as well.

Darren: As for why I’m involved in the fundraiser, I feel strongly about helping the kids, but I also think we need to send a message to the adults. To the parents, and to the police, judges and politicians. ‘Lock ‘em up’ hasn’t been working to solve our problems. We need different solutions. We need to start talking about things that will actually help our youth, rather than creating divisions between people and looking down on people.

 

What’s special about these two centres? Why did the editorial board choose Ndinawe and Turtle Island to receive the donations from this fundraiser?

Stefan: Both centres are in an area of the city where kids are having a hard time, having to face drugs and gangs at a young age. These organizations are a safe place to hang out, a place for positive role models, and a place to get involved in sports, art, culture, and other positive activities.

Darren: Some of these smaller community centres in the inner-city don’t have enough funding to run their own programs. Some are even at risk of shutting down. Cultural teachings are being cut; really important programs are at risk. We can’t let that happen. (Darren also wanted it noted that his children attend the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre, so that makes it especially significant for him.)

Dustin: The youth are our future. And I think some of us can relate to some of what they are going through. Stopping their problems before they start is a way to keep them from ending up here. I’ve seen it more than once, the street life chewing kids up and spitting them out. Some places can be ugly for the youth to grow up. I think it’s our responsibility to provide them with some direction and resources.

 

What would you say to convince people to donate to your fundraiser? Give me your pitch!

Dustin: There have been times in the North End when kids haven’t always felt safe to play outside. These centres are like safe zones where kids can play sports, do activities, do all the things kids should be able to do.

Darren: You know how some people put money away for their kids’ education and say they’re investing in their kids’ future? Well, that’s important, but we should also be investing in their present. That’s what having these kinds of spaces is.

 

What do you plan to do when you get out to continue helping youth in the city?

Darren: I think people with past experiences like ours can be good spokespeople for youth. I’ve done presentations before, for youth but also for CFS workers and counsellors, telling my life story and getting the message out there about crime and poverty, that it’s more complicated than we think, that it’s not always a choice. I hope to do that again in the future. I’ve taken a university counselling skills course so I think I’ve got a lot to offer through that.

Stefan: Thinking about how we can influence our youth, I almost think we have to approach it like gang members do. Gang members are always looking at the youth as the next generation, as having so much potential for them. They’re out to convince the youth that they’re like family to them. I think we actually need to do that too, but in a positive way. We need to let our youth know that we support them and that we’re there for them.

 

How does it feel to be able to volunteer while in jail?

Todd: It feels really good. It feels good to be helping somebody else.

Kevin: It gives you a more positive outlook on yourself, going out of the way to help the youth. Just because it started from jail doesn’t mean it has to stop when you get out.

Robin: I get a good feeling out of volunteering with JHS, and I do plan to continue volunteering when I get released.

 

Do you think people in the community would be surprised to see inmates doing a fundraising campaign?

Darren: Usually the media only shows the negative things in the news. They rarely show communities addressing their own problems in positive ways. So yeah, people are going to be surprised to see us doing this – they’re used to seeing only the worst in people, especially people in jail.

Kevin: Well, you can’t let what people say discourage you, even if they’re saying negative things.

Dustin: Yeah, as this continues to go on, it will eventually prove that this is not for our benefit, but for the broader community.

 

What are you doing, or what do you hope to do, to become a better person?

Dustin: Well, this right here, is part of it. I think this is a good thing to help me become a better person, getting involved in something charitable, helping someone other than myself.

Robin: I plan to become a better person by helping others in the community. I have volunteered in the past, and will continue to do so.

Kevin: I think to be a better person you have to change your whole belief system. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to keep coming back here? Or do I want to be with my family?’ Most of the time in jail you’re just wasting your time, but I really feel that what we’re doing here, going to school, doing this fundraiser, I feel what we’re doing here is something different, something I can feel good about.

Stefan: Change in my life has benefits my own life, and the streets. My nieces and nephews, they look up to me and they’ve seen the kind of life that I’ve lived. I regret that I taught them the wrong way in life, I told them the wrong things, and yes, I misguided them. I am sorry for my choices and my actions and my words I spoke. That was the past! I can learn from my past mistakes and move forward for a better future. So yeah, by me working for a better life for myself I’m working for a better life for them too. There is a better life than this, I know it!

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