What happens when someone visits communities others avoid–where even the residents wish they were somewhere else? Dr. Brian Charest, Assistant Professor of the School of Education at the University of Redlands has been teaching in prisons and running alongside the encampments on the streets of Skid Row. And he’s not doing it alone–he’s taking college students with him.
In our interview, Charest shares how he’s pursuing social justice and expand democracy as an educator and how real education happens outside the classroom.
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You started out as a public-school teacher on the South Side of Chicago. What led you to a career in education?
I always wanted to do a job that would contribute in some way to the common good. And, for a variety of reasons, I found myself teaching on the South Side of Chicago. I was a white, middle-class guy working in a predominantly Black and brown space where 98% of the students received free or reduced lunch. That experience was a political awakening for me–to see that in the wealthiest country in the world we had an education system with these huge disparities. And that led me to ask questions about justice, systemic racism, and access to opportunity.
You’ll be teaching a course called Inside-Out for its 4th year where students learn alongside incarcerated students at the Norco Correctional Facility. How did you get into this program?
My principal at the high school where I was teaching in Seattle was a former ‘60’s radical, and he was very active in prison abolition work. He developed a group where teachers and aspiring teachers visited the Monroe state prison to meet with men who were incarcerated. We talked about educational issues with people who were locked up for long stretches of time. It was a powerful experience for all of us. When I came to the University, I wanted to find a way to recreate that kind of experience for students at Redlands. Students told me about R.E.A.C.H., a program led by Jennifer Tilton, professor of Race and Ethnicity Studies. Jen was teaching courses inside the San Bernardino Juvenile Hall through the Inside-Out program, an international program where faculty teach within prisons. Jen really helped me get started with Inside-Out.
“My work as an educator has always been about pushing out into the community, often in unlikely spaces”
What is the biggest lesson you see students, incarcerated and non-incarcerated, taking away from the Inside-Out Program?
It may sound cliché, but what happens is that the inside and outside students find out they have a lot in common as they begin to recognize their common humanity. No one wants to be reduced to the worst thing they’ve ever done and so this is a chance for us all to work across these profound social barriers and see each other as fully human beings—to see beyond the labels. Also, this program is about taking a restorative approach to education to help people heal and to recognize different ways to think about justice. Is locking people up in a cage for 10, 15-years to life really the best way to address these issues and bring someone back into society? When I was training to do the Inside-Out course in a Michigan prison, one of the guards said, “Most of these guys are going to get out someday. And they may live down the street from you or me. I want them to be prepared when they get out.”
You published a book this year called Civic Literacy in Schools and Communities. Is a teaching career really about upholding democracy?
For me, it certainly is. If we think about the concept of a strong democracy, it requires an engaged citizenry. When I was teaching on the South Side of Chicago, I recognized that there was a gap between the official curriculum and the problems students were facing in their daily lives. I thought, does it make sense to spend our time inside reading Shakespeare and learning geometry, or would it make more sense to read Shakespeare and learn geometry and then use what we know to work directly on finding ways to get more economic development happening in this neighborhood? Because learning in schools is often disconnected from the problems students and families face in their communities, people end up feeling disempowered. They leave school and they don’t know how to get involved to make changes, because we don’t offer that experience as part of the school day. Educators need to get involved in community-based work with students. Let’s build power. So, yeah, that’s what the book is about.
Many people love to escape their work after a long day. But you don’t. You participate in the Skid Row Running Club where you run through L.A.’s most impoverished neighborhood with members of the community.
My work as an educator has been about pushing out into the community, often working in unlikely spaces with marginalized people. But, this has always felt normal and natural to me. Learning can’t be contained in a classroom. I want to go where there’s a need and where I can work with others to have the most impact. The Inside-Out program is one example of this. We’re going to work with people who are made invisible, ignored, and forgotten by mainstream society. To do justice work, you’ve got to be with people and meet them where they are. For the run club, we’re going to Skid Row to get to know people trying to find a pathway back. Problems start to occur when people who have the best of intentions, don’t have that proximity. They’re not listening to those most impacted by policy decisions and they aren’t truly confronting what’s happening in a society that has grown more and more unequal. There’s a huge population living on the streets in Los Angeles and to run every week in that community is just a small gesture. We start our runs there to show that there is a way out of that life and that there are people here who are willing to work with you. I love to run, so it feels like a small thing to do.
We regularly encourage students to network as a means of advancing their professional goals. How has the Skid Row Running Club supported your network?
It’s a diverse group. I know artists, formerly incarcerated, judges, police, people in recovery, EMTs, educators, veterans, and motivational speakers. Amazing people. All of them have something to give. We joke, “If someone in the club has a problem there’s always someone in the group who can help.” I would say my work in education has included intentional relationship building. Sitting with people and listening to their stories, or running with them–it’s a way to expand your understanding of the world and build a network. If you’re going to build a better world, that means building power, and it’s all about building your network.
The idea of judges, homeless persons, and police coming together is unique. It seems this is something we could use more of in a polarized country.
Absolutely! I think one of the problems that we’re confronting at this moment is a reluctance to cross boundaries created by political affiliations and social class. People are in their tract, and they tend to associate with people who are exactly like them politically, economically, and socially. Both the Inside-Out program and Skid Row Running Club undermine that reality by bringing together people who would not otherwise meet. The SRRC is about challenging social norms and saying that police can be friends with formerly incarcerated people and former addicts can befriend judges and professors. It’s truly an amazing community, and I’m thankful that Judge Craig Mitchell, the founder of the club, was so welcoming to me from day one.
What advice would you leave for students seeking a career as a teacher or someone who wants to be an activist in say, nonprofit work?
To folks becoming teachers–get out of the schools, get out of the classrooms, get into your community and expand your horizons on what you think teaching is about. There is a world of possibility that goes far beyond any textbook or curriculum. Some of my best learning experiences happen outside of the classroom.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Brian Charest’s work with the Inside-Out program, the Skid Row Running Club, or his recent publication, Civic Literacy in Schools and Education, please visit www.briancharest.com.