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I walked into a prison expecting to meet criminals. Instead, I found a community of men.

How I learned more about the criminal justice system in one day than I did reading 100 books.

I walked into a prison expecting to meet criminals. Instead, I found a community of men.
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Open Society Foundations
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It's my first day as a creative writing teacher at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

I'm waiting for the men who will soon fill the circle of brown, wooden desks around me. The sound of the air conditioner buzzes from a vent in the far corner of the room.

As a graduate student, I study the intersection of education and incarceration. But I believe that my work can't be limited to the confines of academic journals and archives, which is why I decided to volunteer at the Bay State Correctional Center.


On my first day, I tried to enter this prison without expectations about what the experience might look like, who the men might be, or what they might have done to end up here. But if I'm honest, I know I've been socialized to believe that to be “criminal" is to somehow be less deserving of humanity.

Without trying, I inevitably carry that bias into the classroom on my first day of teaching.

That's why I'm so startled when Daryl enters the classroom that first morning. He walks up to me, smiles so as to reveal a small gap between his teeth, and shakes my hand with the sort of firmness my grandfather had always demanded of me.

“I'm looking forward to learning from you," he says.

“The feeling is mutual," I respond, my eyes wandering to the books he holds securely on his hip.

Daryl holds a notepad consumed by a sea of ink, two pens, and several books, their spines worn from use. He sets his belongings down on the desk next to me to reveal a collection of texts ranging from 18th century poetry to contemporary political philosophy.

Over the course of the next few minutes, this ritual repeats itself.

Each man enters the room, shakes my hand, and drops a stack of impressive books on his desk.

Before class even begins, they chat eagerly with one another about what they've been reading.

They discuss the nuances of liberation theology, the value of feminist work, and whether a particular poem one of them was working on would be better as a sonnet or sestina.

The room is filled with the sort of intellectual curiosity a teacher dreams of.

Our society constructs ideas about what it means to be a prisoner.

Those ideas, in turn, teach us how to evaluate a prisoner's worth as a human being.

I've started to see it all around us: America's highly racialized "tough on crime" rhetoric suggests that the incarcerated inherently deserve to be treated with minimal respect. Television and film often depict prisoners as barbaric and subhuman people who need to be both physically and emotionally removed from our consciousness.

The proliferation of private prisons, in which companies generate a profit from housing as many people as possible, for as cheaply as possible, for as long as possible, indicates that we have prioritized financial capital over humanity.

Quite naturally, we internalize these images and ideas, and they soon become a part of our societal lexicon. Subsequently, the men and women in our prisons become caricatures.

But while teaching in this prison, I've found no such caricatures.

I don't know what they did to end up here. But I do know I've found friends like Leo, whose poems speak to the nostalgia of watching his daughter play in the backyard as a child, and Chad, who has an unapologetic love for both classic automobiles and geography, and can effortlessly name and pinpoint countries and capitals around the globe.

Together, we use literature to explore, question, and critique the world around us.

These men, most of whom have been incarcerated for decades, and few of whom ever received high school degrees, have pushed me to decouple what it means to be well-educated as compared to well-schooled.

I've learned more from them than I have in any class.

They've taught me that sometimes life is as much about what you unlearn as it is about what you learn.

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Ndakasi and Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma.

Fourteen years ago, Ndakasi the mountain gorilla was found clinging to her dead mother in the Congo after bushmeat hunters wiped out her entire family. This week it was announced that she recently passed away in the arms of Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma, the man who rescued her.

Bauma served as Ndakasi's caretaker since he brought her to the park's Senkwekwe Center, where she was rehabilitated along with another orphaned gorilla named Ndeke. Unable to be safely returned to the wild, Ndakasi lived her life in Virunga, where mountain gorilla conservation is a priority.

The park shared a touching photo and announcement of Ndakasi's passing on Facebook. The gorilla had been suffering from a prolonged illness, and her condition had rapidly deteriorated. A photo shows Bauma sitting on a blanket leaning up against the wall with Ndakasi lying next to him, her head on his chest and her toes gripping his boot.

"Ndakasi took her final breath in the loving arms of her caretaker and lifelong friend, André Bauma," reads the post.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!